Greening townhouses with a top-down approach

Townhouse Image
July 6, 2016
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David Marcus doesn’t just own a townhouse. He also knows how it works.

In summer 2015, Marcus and his wife bought a townhome in Takoma Park. But well before that, he got his current job as a project manager with the U.S. Green Building Council, the organization that offers LEED certification, among other services, to sustainable builders and buildings. Marcus has put that expertise to work in making his townhouse a more energy-efficient—and comfortable—place to live. And it is yielding big savings.

Some of the possibilities for sustainable living aren’t unique to townhouses; others are. Thanks to their unique construction style, these dwellings provide unusual challenges and opportunities to their residents, most if not all of which won’t require any special cooperation from a homeowner’s association.

“The challenge for townhomes is vertical living,” Marcus said. “There’s a pronounced difference in temperatures from the lower levels to the upper levels. You have to balance it not just because you want to save energy but so it’s comfortable on all floors.”


Townhomes vs. Single-Family

In a way, green-minded townhouse owners are ahead of the game compared with their single-family home-owning counterparts, simply by virtue of the townhouse itself. It’s a more compact unit of housing than a detached home, and their shared walls help prevent the loss of heated or cooled air.


An example of a Townhouse

It’s also a denser style of development than the single-family home, meaning less land used in their construction. Lower surface area on the roof means less unwanted solar heating (and running of the air conditioner) during warmer months.

On the other side of the coin, heat rises, and a typical townhome’s columnar design makes that particular law of physics more noticeable. Higher levels are hotter and more energy-intensive to cool.


Seal the Deal

That’s why, when Marcus moved in to his townhouse, one of the first projects was improving air flow and sealing his attic as tightly as possible to minimize the escape of conditioned inside air and the wasted energy that goes along with it.

“Air sealing was huge for us,” Marcus said. “You need a tight thermal envelope. It’s a little labor-intensive, but once I did it, we noticed a pretty immediate difference in comfort.”

Homeowners can always hire professionals to handle such projects, but air sealing, relatively speaking, doesn’t require a mountain of known-how. Spray foam insulation, available at any hardware store, works well in plugging up the nooks and crannies that air and energy love to exploit, particularly in the attic space.

“At the top of the wall in a townhouse, you have board, and there are seams there that air can infiltrate through,” Marcus explained. “You can take spray foam insulation and spray under the normal insulation to seal those cracks and gaps, and any place where there’s penetration of electrical outlets or vents or fans.”

At the same time, check to make sure existing insulation is up to par—and don’t skip air sealing even if you don’t own a townhouse. According to estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, homeowners can save an average of 15 percent on heating and cooling costs by properly air sealing and insulating their homes.

Along with air sealing, fans and dual-stage or “two-speed” HVAC systems also can help maintain comfort and conserve energy by cooling and moving air around more effectively.


Blower Door Test

An energy auditor conducts a blower door test at the Marcus residence in Takoma Park. The Marcus household received a free energy audit thanks to rebates from Pepco and the Takoma Park city government.

Energy Audits

Even trained professionals sometimes need help figuring out where and how best to make their residence greener. That was true for Marcus, who upon moving in to his townhouse took advantage of a program from Pepco that provides homeowners and others with discounted energy audits.

Through Pepco’s Quick Home Energy Check-Up Program, homeowners can, at no cost, schedule a visit with an energy professional to determine easy ways to improve their efficiency.

Marcus took things a step farther with Pepco’s Home Performance With Energy Star Program. A licensed contractor visits a home and conducts a thorough assessment of a home’s entire energy-usage profile. Thanks to rebates from Pepco, the assessment, typically valued at $400, costs only $100 for each household. The program then works with homeowners to find rebates and discounts for the energy upgrades they need to improve efficiency, based on the findings of the assessment.

The deal got even sweeter for Marcus. Because he lives in Takoma Park, the city government covered the other $100, making the assessment free of charge.

Now in a more energy-efficient space than just a year ago, Marcus and his wife are expecting their first child soon. But that doesn’t mean they’re planning to slow down on their greening any time soon.

“Townhouses can be very green places,” Marcus said. “You just have to know about the different opportunities. It’s vertical living, but that gives you a chance to do some good things.”


By Scott Harris. Scott is a freelance writer who lives in Montgomery County and covers the environment and other topics. He may be reached at



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